When I was a child growing up in the 1950s, Major League Baseball was the national pastime. Baseball dominated media sports coverage.
But that is no longer the case.
The extraordinary shift is confirmed by the television Nielsen ratings for Sept. 3-9. The NBC coverage of last week's Steeler-Bronco game had 27.5 million viewers and was the top-rated show. The second-rated show was NBC coverage of the Cowboy-Giant Wednesday night game with almost 24 million viewers.
The third rated show was NBC's Sunday pregame show with an audience of 20 million. The fourth rated show was NBC's pregame show preceding the Wednesday night football with almost 19 million viewers. Rounding out the top five was Football Night in America with 13 million viewers. The No. 7 seven rated show was NFL Opening Kickoff with an audience of 10 million. That means the top five shows and six of the top seven were all football on NBC.
By comparison, two high rating perennial shows like "America's Got Talent" had nine million viewers and "Two and a Half Men" had six. When six of the top seven rated entertainment options on television – matched against the best entertainment that the 300 stations and cable options that Hollywood and other sports have to offer – are NFL games or pre-games, something fundamental has shifted in America.
How did this dramatic shift occur? Television and the NFL evolved together since the 60s into a marriage made in heaven. The multiple cameras, sound, highlights, instant replay, slow motion and other novel production techniques used in NFL coverage captivated a large audience. NFL Films, led by the combined genius of Ed and Steve Sabol, innovated the combination of music and highlights. This became the norm on local news and ESPN.
Direct TV enables viewers to watch all the Sunday games, with compelling features that move the audience from highlight to highlight.
The NFL Network features a variety of NFL content.
A sport like baseball has slower rythyms. It is an experience passed down from fathers to sons which needs history and statistics to be fully enjoyed. The more leisurely pace of baseball still has millions of dedicated fans, but the NFL has passed it by.
The NFL is an "event sport" played once a week. There is a weekly pre-game anticipation and buildup and post-game analysis. Every game matters and may be critical in the race to the Super Bowl. American appetite for violent, collison-filled action has increased. The NFL features bigger, stronger, faster bodies which produce an exponentially more impactful "physics of the hit" that is increasingly dramatic.
The NFL has had the leadership and vision of promotion oriented commissioners, from Pete Rozelle to Paul Taglibue to Roger Goodell. Continuous labor peace and long-term collective bargaining agreements have assured fans that games would be played and are not overshadowed by labor strife.
Owners like the Cowboys' Jerry Jones and the Patriots' Bob Kraft have pushed the cutting edge of creative branding.
NFL Properties and Players Inc. have been agressive in marketing. Vast NFL and team aparell and memorabilia are omnipresent.
Tailgating, sports bars, luxury boxes, premiere seating, naming rights, cheerleaders and team logoed credit cards have driven the experience.
Millions of fans play fantasy football on a weekly basis giving them a special rooting interest.
Gamblers and the ubiquitous office game pools heighten focus.
Talk radio and the internet provide endless commentary and reports.
This country has morphed into NFL madness. The second most popular sport in most reader polls is ... wait for it ... college football. And following the collegiate players elevation to the pros - highlighted by massive amounts of draft coverage, amplifies the effect.
To guage the evolution of American culture and tastes, simply trace the substitution of the public's love affair with the more textured, pastoral game of baseball by the current obsession with the faster-paced, more violent National Football League.